Legislature, News

Senate ignores Medicaid expansion in budget; Berger says it ‘disincentivizes folks to go to work’ (video)

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger made it clear Tuesday that Medicaid expansion was off the table in this year’s state budget.

Flanked by his chief budget writers, Berger told reporters that 40 percent of the potential Medicaid expansion population qualify for some form of subsidized insurance coverage on the federal marketplace and might view expansion as a disincentive to find work.

Click below to listen to Berger’s remarks.

As Richard Craver reports in the Winston-Salem Journal, the Senate’s stance sets up as major fight with the House and Governor Cooper’s office as they work to hammer out a final state spending plan.

When asked about Cooper opposition to the Senate budget proposal sans Medicaid expansion, Berger acknowledged the potential for lengthy negotiations.

“We are likely to have a disagreement with the governor (over Medicaid expansion) but not that it should prevent an agreement,” Berger said.

“He should look at how the state’s revenues have been managed the last nine years and the fiscal soundness.

We’re going to continue those policies.

“He should sign the budget that we work out with the House,” Berger said.

None of the three Democratic and Republican bills containing Medicaid language have advanced in the committee stage this session

That includes bipartisan support behind House Bill 655, sponsored by state Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, which includes a work requirement for some recipients.

Read the rest of Craver’s story here.

The Senate’s budget will be before the full Appropriations Committee this morning starting at 8:30am and the Finance Committee at 1:00pm. Floor votes on the budget are expected Thursday and Friday.

Click here to read more of the 2019 Appropriations Act.

Commentary, Legislature, News, Trump Administration

The Week’s Top Stories on Policy Watch


1. The price NC is paying for Tillis’s loyalty to Trump

The spectacle of Senator Thom Tillis’s spiritless kowtowing to Donald Trump in recent months has truly been something to behold.

It wasn’t that long ago that Tillis was talking big about the need for humane immigration reform policies and the need to combat efforts to undermine investigations into Russian meddling in our democracy.

Boy, did a few shots across the bow from the far right about a possible 2020 GOP primary challenge change all of that. First, of course, came Tillis’s “flip-flop for the ages” on the question of Trump’s declaring a national emergency with respect to the situation on the U.S.-Mexico border. [Read more…]

2. Right and left find rare bit of common ground on “second chance” legislation

More than 1,000 people descended on the state Legislative Building Wednesday to lobby for the Second Chance Act – a bill they say will profoundly change the lives of those with criminal charges or convictions on their record.

Senate Bill 562 would automatically expunge criminal charges that have been dismissed or disposed of as “not guilty” after December 1, 2019. It would also allow people to petition to have all non-violent felony convictions expunged after 10 years of good behavior.

That will help people with records avoid employment and housing discrimination, the bill’s supporters say, getting them back to work and making it easier for them to move on with their lives and make a contribution to society.[Read more…]

 

3. ‘Reform is the answer:’ Voters gather at legislature to lobby for an end to gerrymandering

Redistricting reform is around the corner, and when it happens, it could move quickly. North Carolinians just have to think about what they want from that reform.

“We do have a voice; we do have an opportunity,” said Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina, a voting rights organization that has pushed for redistricting reform for over a decade.

About 60 “tried and true advocates” and voters gathered Tuesday at the legislature for the “People’s Lobby Day to End Gerrymandering.” They spoke to lawmakers and their legislative assistants to encourage support or thank them for their support of one of the six redistricting reform bills currently pending. [Read more…]


4. Damn the politics, impeach Donald Trump. Now.

When Yoni Appelbaum, a senior editor at The Atlantic, wrote in March that President Trump should be impeached, perhaps, for the writer, some doubt remained even then as to the president’s ultimate guilt or innocence.

“Impeachment is a process, not an outcome,” he wrote. “A rule-bound procedure for investigating a president, considering evidence, formulating charges, and deciding whether to continue on to trial.”

That was two months ago, eons in the Trump universe, a parallel dimension in which the orange debaser in office can stack exponential transgressions upon transgressions, seemingly impervious to time or space. That includes his latest embarrassment, a shallow and, ultimately failed, effort to shape the coverage of the Mueller Report. [Read more…]


5. Education Secretary Betsy Devos pushes her school choice agenda at conference for education writers

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

One could never mistake U.S, Education Secretary Betsy Devos for a victim, but she sure played one Monday during the 72nd Education Writers Seminar being held in Baltimore.

Standing before a roomful of education writers from across the nation, Devos sternly accused Big Media of using her name to score page views.

“As much as many of you in the media use my name as click bait, or try to make it all about me, it’s not,” Devos said. Education is not about Betsy Devos, nor about any other individual. It’s about students.”

If the truth be told, Devos does have a way of generating unfavorable news reports.[Read more…]

 

6. Sampling shows PFAS, GenX in groundwater wells in New Hanover County; contaminants not detected in drinking water


State environmental regulators are sampling groundwater from monitoring wells in northern New Hanover County after perfluorinated compounds, including GenX, were detected in six of 25 wells that supply the Richardson water treatment plant.

However, the compounds were not detected in finished drinking water.

The plant, operated by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, provides drinking water to several communities, including Murrayville, Wrightsboro, and parts of Castle Hayne and Odgen. The source of this public water supply is groundwater tapped from the Castle Hayne and PeeDee aquifers.

While most of the utility’s water treatment plants withdraw from the river, the Richardson plant uses groundwater.[Read more…]

 

7. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Education, Environment, Legislature, NC Budget and Tax Center, News

The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

  1. Teachers and their supporters flood downtown Raleigh for second consecutive year

Downtown Raleigh came alive Wednesday with thousands of North Carolina educators filling the streets to demand lawmakers increase funding for public schools.

Educators and their supporters began to gather at the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) headquarters near the Duke Energy Center before 8 a.m.

By mid-morning, they were marching to the state legislature, chanting slogans and flashing signs, many of which highlighted educators’ five demands to the Republican-led General Assembly.[Read more…]

Bonus links:

 

2. Superintendent Johnson uses new website to gaslight educators

Under North Carolina’s Standard Course of Study, 6th graders are expected to understand the difference between the average and median of a distribution of numbers. So the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Mark Johnson, is certainly aware that you should never compare the median of one data set to the average of another data set. Yet that – along with a score of additional statistical no-no’s – is exactly what Johnson did in rolling out the NC School Finances website last week.

The website gathers a plethora of information on school funding and expenditures. While almost all of the information has been readily available on other sections of DPI’s website for years, this new central repository could be useful for education policymakers, practitioners and advocates (personally, I find the site slow and very user unfriendly).[Read more…]

 

3. Gerrymandering lawsuit stunner: Daughter of deceased GOP mapmaker turns over his documents to Common Cause

The daughter of late GOP mapmaker Thomas Hofeller – the man responsible for some of North Carolina’s most infamous gerrymanders – turned over four of his external hard drives and 18 thumb drives after his death to the plaintiffs suing North Carolina lawmakers.

Stephanie Hofeller Lizon gave the documents to attorneys in March, a month after she was issued a subpoena in the state partisan gerrymandering case Common Cause v. Lewis. No one objected to the subpoena initially, but Phil Strach, who represents the lawmakers in the case, is objecting to the plaintiffs’ decision to refrain from opening Hofeller’s sensitive tax and medical documents and to withhold them from the other parties to the litigation. [Read more…]

Bonus link:

Read more

Environment, Legislature

A testy Senate passes controversial ratemaking bill that would favor Duke Energy

Coincidence? Found on a table this week at the General Assembly (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

The name “Duke Energy” is so contentious that Sen. Dan Blue asked his fellow lawmakers to forget it. At least for the purposes of passing a bill that would be a ratemaking coup for the nation’s largest utility.

“Move away from the name,” said Blue, a Democrat and one of the primary bill sponsors, on the Senate floor Thursday, “and bring in 21st century practices.”

These practices, enshrined in Senate Bill 559, would allow Duke to petition the utilities commission for a multi-year rate plan, instead of having to request a rate hike hearing more often. “This is very simple enabling legislation,” said Sen. Paul Newton, a former Duke Energy executive. “It simply allows the utilities commission to consider alternative ratemaking.”

But whenever a lawmaker advises that a bill is “simple,” it’s usually not. While the utilities commission could ostensibly deny Duke’s request, it’s unclear if it would. And because of an amendment by Sen. Ralph Hise, Duke could ignore the utilities commission’s rulings on rate cases. If Duke doesn’t get the increase it wants, it could simply withdraw its proposal and try for a do-over later. This would wastes hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars spent by utility commissioners and the public staff, which advocates for the ratepayer, on preparing for the rate case.

The public could have fewer opportunities to formally comment, since rate cases could be held less often.

Bill proponents claim that rates would decrease under the new mechanism, and that the angst against the measure is misplaced.

“No bill has had more hyperbole,” said Hise, himself using hyperbole to describe hyperbole.

But the broad strokes of the bill language leave it open to interpretation. Nor is there proof of supporters’ claims. as Democratic Sen. Mike Woodard noted during the floor debate, “Where is the evidence?”

Newton said a US Department of Energy study showed these mechanisms “can slow the growth in customer bills.” However, that is speculative. And he acknowledged that a utility’s rate of return — the monies distributed to shareholders — “could go up and down” within the multiyear rate plan.

It’s not coincidental, Woodward went on, that the bill was introduced as the utility faces enormous costs: $13 billion for grid modernization and $10 billion for coal ash cleanup. The utility reported $24.5 billion in gross revenue last year; “modernizing” the ratemaking scheme could help prop up those earnings. (Duke is scheduled to release its first-quarter financials on May 9.)

Blue said that telephone companies have operated under alternative ratemaking plans for many years. However, unlike Duke, which has a regulated monopoly, telephone companies have competition. Customers can choose their carrier.

North Carolina’s business community overwhelmingly opposes the bill, because of the likelihood of multi-year rate increases.

Sen. Bob Steinberg, a Republican who voted against the bill, mentioned a letter sent from the NC Manufacturing Association, and signed by 59 companies, opposing it. “There’s only one company asking for this,” he said. “Are we supposed to ignore 59 companies? It’s a strange way to go about business even in this body politic.”

“Put on your consumer hat before you vote,” Woodard urged his colleagues. “It’s a radical change. Where is the evidence of these claims? Of efficiency and lower rates? Do you understand the rate plan enough to be comfortable with it, to explain it to your constituents?”

Regardless of their depth of understanding, the Senate passed the bill 27-21. Six Republicans voted against the bill; five Democrats voted for it. Sen. Floyd McKissick recused himself because he was recently appointed to the utilities commission by Gov. Roy Cooper.

It now goes to the House.

Behind the scenes, bill sponsors and Duke lobbyists spent the week trying to rustle up support. The first section of the measure is not controversial. It deals with cost recovery and bonds to help utilities pay for repairs from storm damage. But the ratemaking provisions jeopardized the bill’s passage. On Tuesday, it appeared Sen. Rabon was short two votes, which raised the possibility that the bill could be divided. The controversial rate section would have to live or die on its own.

But by Thursday, bill sponsors had scuttled the idea. The Senate further foreclosed on the possibility of dividing the bill when it kiboshed a motion to do so, introduced by Democratic Sen. Harper Peterson.

Woodard tried to slow the bill’s roll, and called for a study of alternative rate-making, a process that would include concerned parties. That proposal also failed.

The final Senate vote capped a speed-of-light legislative process that began in earnest just two weeks ago. In a committee meeting on April 18, bill sponsors and Duke Energy unleashed a full-court press to convince lawmakers that the measure was a mere trifle. Alex Glenn, Duke Energy’s senior vice president of State and Federal Regulatory Legal Support, told the committee that multiyear rate schemes are “nothing new. It’s permissive. It’s a measured step forward.”

“This bill will reduce the rates we pay,” said Hise. “When we recruit businesses they’ll know what to expect over a three-to-five-year plan.”

That’s precisely the problem, said the AARP, the NC Retail Merchants Association and Appalachian Voices, all of whom opposed the bill. There’s no guarantee that rates will decrease, and if they rise, customers could be locked into higher bills for several years.

“Good policy isn’t developed under a cloud of secrecy or rushed through,” said Matt Lawson of Appalachian Voices in the committee hearing. The new rate scheme “was grafted on to unrelated legislation about storm recovery.”

Peterson asked, “What’s driving this? I see no reason for the dramatic change.”

“Maybe you’re scared of the dark? Metaphorically speaking,” Rabon replied. “If you’re scared of new options, maybe you’re scared of the dark.”

“I am afraid of the dark,” Peterson retorted. “The dark star: a $13 billion grid upgrade, a $10 billion coal ash clean up put on the back of the customer. I’m concerned about the voice of the consumer.”

Below: A list of the bill sponsors, the amount of campaign contributions received from Duke Energy last year, and how they voted on SB 559.

NameAmountPartyVote
Dan Blue$10,400DY
Ben Clark$4000DY
Paul Lowe$2000DY
Ralph Hise$6000RY
Danny Britt$4000RY
Bill Rabon$10,400RY
Deanna Ballard$500RY
Jim Burgin$0RY
Warren Daniel$5000RY
Jerry Tillman$6000R
N
Rick Horner$1000RN
Environment, Legislature

The billboard bill is back and ready to cut down some trees

A map on the Lamar outdoor advertising company website shows all of the billboard inventory in the North Carolina. (Screenshot: Lamar.com)

Because nothing says a trip to the North Carolina mountains like a brigade of billboards asking you if a) you’ve been drinking, b) are pregnant, or c) in despair.

Hangry? Other billboards are luring you to try a salt bomb, aka a Catfish Feast, from the fast food franchise Captain D’s. Broke from spending a weekend in overpriced hotel? Then you won’t mind a Pawn Plus outdoor ad intruding on the majestic beauty of Blue Ridge Mountains.

House Bill 645, the billboard bill, has been resurrected after two years’ of dormancy. It pits an outdoor advertiser’s “right to be clearly viewed” against local governments’ authority to regulate the siting of billboards. And arguably, if a dead billboard has rights, then living trees should have rights, too.

The legislation is very similar to the measure that was floated in 2017 — and sank on second reading. It allows tree cutting and pruning for each sign face 500 feet horizontal distance parallel to the right of way. Since some outdoor advertising companies often line up their billboards in multiples, that’s a minimum of 1,000 feet.

Although the bill language doesn’t specifically mention digital billboards, as did its 2017 counterpart, they are implicit in the definition of “any outdoor sign, display, light, device … or any other thing” intended to advertise or inform. (Emphasis mine.) Digital billboards

DOT would be required to fairly compensate the billboard owner if the sign had to be removed. And if the billboard were to be relocated, it would have to be within 660 feet of the nearest edge of the right-of-a-way of an interstate or a federally funded primary highway, which could include state roads, such as NC 147 in Durham.

Durham already has strict billboard regulations and has banned digital outdoor advertising. The bill would supersede all local ordinances.

The bill also would preserve “to the extent possible,” native dogwoods and redbuds.

The US billboard industry grew by 2 percent in 2018 — far outpacing other traditional advertising avenues. But online advertising, according to IBISWorld.com, “will continue to siphon revenue from traditional industry displays.”

Nonetheless, there are at least 370,000 billboards operating nationwide, with 15,000 new ones erected each year, according to a November 2018 article in The Hustle. The same article quotes Betsy McLarney, founder of an ad agency, EMC Outdoor, as saying, “People used to think that billboards were over-saturation. But digital is like being in Times Square at all times.”

Because nothing says a trip to the mountains like the frenetic overstimulation of Times Square.